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Adat Ari El Synagogue and Citizens of the World Charter School address allegations of antisemitism on campus

Statements from CWC LA Executive Director and CWC East Valley Principal express deep apologies and commitment to repairing harm.

On Friday, November 10th Adat Ari El Synagogue held a press conference to address the recent allegations of antisemitism on the campus of Citizens of the World Charter School, a tenant of the synagogue. The conference set clear expectations for all synagogue partners moving forward in creating a safe environment for the Jewish community. Statements from representatives on behalf of Adat Ari El Synagogue, LAUSD and Citizens of the World Charter School below. 

Speaking on behalf of Adat Ari El Synagogue, Senior Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei made the following statement:

“Earlier this week, I took my son out of school to visit some of the most famous sites from the Civil Rights Movement.  Together, we walked across the famous Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma Alabama.   I told my son, “Martin Luther King led a march across this bridge to ensure that every American had the right to vote.  We are marching across this bridge now, so you can learn from their holy example.  We cannot  be silent in the face of hate.”

When I told my son this, never could I imagine that but a few days later, I would need to heed that very message.  Today, I stand before you as a Rabbi and proud Jew, calling for us all to loudly and forcefully stand-up to the vicious anti-semitism that is gripping this country.  We are facing a tsunami of hatred against Jews, and we must speak out with indignation that this will not be tolerated. We will not allow blood libels to fester in communities like our own in the wake of the worst mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust.

This terrible incident here must not simply be ignored or allowed to fade away, rather we must recognize it as the clearest of clarion calls.   Encouraging the destruction and eradication of Israel is antisemitic and represents a grave threat to our people.  

With that in mind, please allow me to share with you the sequence of events, and then, most importantly, what we can learn from this as we all move forward.

Immediately following the barbaric murder of our people by Hamas on October 7th, our synagogue proudly hung Israeli flags throughout our campus’ outdoor corridor. 

We rent space on our campus to a local public charter school, Citizens of the World, and we allow many of their students and staff to walk through that  corridor for easier access to their classrooms and offices. 

On Oct 16, less than two weeks after the traumatic events of Oct 7, I received an email from the principal of the CWC school relaying concerns certain of their teachers expressed about the flags in the courtyard.

In the closing of the email the principal wrote:

“I know that this is a time to hold your community close, and perhaps the flags are intended for that- but do you know how long they will be up?”

The next morning, I met with the principal, and shared  that the email was offensive.  First, it is our courtyard that we generously allow the school to utilize;  it is not their space.  But more importantly, I told the principal that inquiring when our flags were coming down was the equivalent of asking someone on Sept 11 to take their American flag down by Sept 12.  It is painfully insensitive.   The principal apologized.  But this was not the end of the issue.

The same teachers that complained about the flags, professed a desire to teach about human rights in their classroom to first graders, but shockingly greenlit by the school’s administration.  Even worse, the content of the lesson was not supervised.  Then, when teaching these lessons, the two teachers weaponized their role as educators to indoctrinate the youngest of children with a radical and hateful agenda.  

After the lesson, one of the teachers proudly shared on instagram and I quote:  “lol but I did a lesson on the genocide in Palestine today w my first graders…”

The teacher went on to boast: “my fav was a kid who was like ‘ what if they just gave the land back to Palestine and find somewhere else to live.”  The teacher punctuated the quote with a heart emoji. 

We are sharing all of this at this incredibly painful moment because we hope that this can be an educational moment, not just here in the San Fernando Valley, but across Los Angeles, and throughout the country.The world needs to know that anyone who calls for the eradication of Israel is expressing a pernicious form of antisemitism, a denial of the right of Jews to live in our ancestral homeland. 

The heart emoji in the teacher’s post is perverse punctuation, dressing up hate in the guise of love.  Too many of us here at Adat Ari El have directly felt the devastation of the Holocaust.  We know what happens when a blind eye is turned to such hatred, and we will not cower in the corner while our campus and community is defiled.  For over twenty years as a rabbi, I have proudly taught “Never Again” – and I mean it. 

I want to make a related point.  To accuse Israel of genocide, is a tragic distortion of a complicated reality.  Israel is in the unenviable situation of needing to fight against an enemy  that uses civilians as shields, who hide their terrorist centers underneath hospitals and schools. An enemy willing to sacrifice their own people to kill ours, leaves Israel in a horrible predicament.   But let us be clear, as Israel goes forth to defend herself, we stand with Israel.  We stand with Israel, hopeful that when this war ends it will lead to a brighter future for both Israelis and Palestinians. 

At its core the Jewish tradition believes in the transformative possibilities of  T’shuvah, repentance.  Repentance means owning missteps and taking corrective action.  It is heartening to see Citizens of the World take these first steps.  We remain committed to working with them to ensure that this is a learning moment for everyone.  We at Adat Ari El are here for all of the parents of Citizens of the World School who have been wounded by the hate that erupted on this campus, and for the Jews beyond our gates.  

At these challenging moments, I turn to our traditions’ beautiful insistence that the darkest hour is the last moment before the emergence of light.  That is what Dr King must have known as he bravely marched across that bridge in Selma and led the quest for Civil Rights.  Like Dr King, as Jews, we know we have not arrived at the destination, but are committed to continuing the journey.  Because we know that if we all work together we can overcome the darkness and usher in the light.  

Am Israel Chai.” 

Statement from Nick Melvoin, Los Angeles Unified School District Board Member:

“Thank you, Rabbi Schuldenfrei, for those powerful words. And thank you, Melissa and Hye- Won, for your unequivocal stands against antisemitism, your acknowledgement of the pain some of your community have been feeling, and your commitment towards learning and a path forward.

In Ecclesiastes, we’re taught that, ‘For everything there is a season…a time to weep and a time to laugh…a time to break down and a time to build up…a time to mourn and a time to dance.’ I want to start by acknowledging that many of us feel that we have not had a time to weep or a time to mourn the horrific events of Oct 7th—the worst atrocity targeting the Jewish people since the Holocaust—without immediately having to debate, to fight equivocations, to justify our very existence. To the parents and community members who are hurting: I see you and I feel with you.

Just a few months ago, I was privileged to join a delegation of educational leaders to Israel as we were confronting the rising antisemitism and its modern-day forms. I think we can unfortunately say “rising” is a thing of the past; it is here. And while confronting any form of hatred is daunting, the challenges we face tackling antisemitism are made all the more so by its pernicious nature and deep historical roots. And also by the way it reinvents itself with every generation; the form may be different, but the content is Jew hatred nonetheless. And our elected leaders must act.

As was mentioned, the social media posts by a couple teachers were this new breed of antisemitism, masked in the context not of criticism of a government, but of the delegitimization and destruction of Israel, the indigenous homeland of the Jewish people. The myths in those posts–of the origins of the conflict and of the actions of the Israeli people–are age-old antisemitic tropes and must never be tolerated. Particularly not with our teachers, particularly not in our classrooms, particularly not with our youngest kids.

Yet, unfortunately, we’re seeing too much of this throughout our country and the world. This is not an isolated incident here at Citizens of the World and I want to thank the school for the courage to speak today as the lessons that emerge from this will benefit students, parents, and teachers throughout the country.

And for those who may say that employees have the right to free expression, let me say that combating antisemitism, racism, and bigotry and protecting free expression are not mutually inconsistent. Educational institutions are committed to open inquiry and freedom of expression, but we must understand, particularly in the context of elementary schools where children’s minds are being shaped, that phrases such as “genocide” bear specific historical meanings and carry with them deep trauma, particularly to the Jewish people who were the victims of the largest and most methodical genocide in history.

We must unequivocally condemn this language and any similarly hurtful phrases, such as ‘from the river to the sea’ or the suggestions that the Jewish people living in their ancestral homeland should ‘go back to where they came from,’ when most of them fled persecution and pogroms in not only Europe, but all of the Middle East. As President Biden said recently, there is nowhere else for them to go. Phrases and suggestions like the ones in question are a call for the destruction of Israel, and that is antisemitic.

It is also incumbent upon leadership to ensure that it is not just the Jewish community speaking up for themselves and educating others about the trauma implicit in these phrases; just as it is not the responsibility of other minority groups to educate the rest of us on their trauma. We must take it upon ourselves to learn and to speak up against any form of bigotry and intolerance.

But as educators, we have a special responsibility to understand and to teach, as this school community is doing through their actions today. We should acknowledge that not everyone who uses hurtful phrases understands their harm and there should be opportunities for counsel and growth. In the words of Maya Angelou, ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.’

But there must also be consequences for antisemitism, just as there should be for racism, and anti-LGBTQ conduct, and Islamophobia, and anti-Asian hate, and the list, unfortunately goes on. We cannot tolerate expressions of hate from anyone, let alone our educators, and we must create classrooms where all children feel safe in their identities. I commend the school administration for holding those involved in these incidents accountable.

One of the things I have often said is that tolerance is a doctrine of strangers; we don’t have to understand to tolerate, we only have to loosely accept. But when given permission to be intolerant, as far too many educational institutions and employers are doing, people will often revert to biases and antisemitism. Which is why we must be more ambitious than mere tolerance, but foster true understanding and compassion and love for one another.

That is why I will be bringing to the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education a policy package to ensure that we lead the nation on our pursuit of compassion in our classrooms and communities. I will be asking for a comprehensive definition of antisemitism, a thorough review of curriculum to make sure it is devoid of bias, the inclusion of the Jewish experience, including antisemitism, in our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion framework, a commitment–and the requisite funding–to ensure all students visit the Museum of Tolerance, the Holocaust Museum, or similar such institutions during their time in our schools, partnerships with the Anti-Defamation League and others to ensure counseling at every school, and updated incident tracking categories to make sure every incident of antisemitism is documented. This will build off of the work we’ve already begun at LA Unified, including yesterday’s virtual Holocaust survivor speaker series that coincided with the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

I hope that these actions will be a model for other school districts across the nation as part of a comprehensive strategy to combat antisemitism and other forms of hate on school campuses.]

Although I am not the Rabbi here, I want to close with a brief midrash: in a few weeks, Jews around the world will celebrate Hanukah, the eight-day festival of lights. Most of us know the story of how the Maccabees only had enough oil to light the lamps for one night, but it lasted for eight nights. A question arose of why it is not a seven-day holiday; after all, they knew they had enough oil for one night so why don’t we just celebrate the next seven as the miracle? The Rabbis answer that there was a miracle on that first night: it was the courage to light the menorah without knowing how long it would last. The courage to take the first step without knowing where your second one may be.

I want to commend Citizens of the World for taking this first step to explicitly call out antisemitism and commit to steps to make our learning environments safe for all students. In a moment of darkness, this is a light to lead not just this school community forward, but other school communities as well.

I want to send a message to the Jewish community that your elected leaders are here with you at this moment. I am committed to doing whatever I can to ensure that our schools are safe places for the Jewish community.

Thank you to Adat Ari El for hosting us, thanks to all of you for coming, and as we enter Shabbat this evening, let us dedicate ourselves to spreading more light in the coming weeks.”

Statement from Melissa Kaplan, CWC LA Executive Director:

“Dear Adat Community,

I want to acknowledge the pain and distress that many in the Jewish community broadly and many in the Adat Ari El and Citizens of the World communities specifically, are experiencing at this moment in time. Many in our communities are in fear and anguish. Now is a time for reflection, learning, and commitment to tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

This week, I was made aware of concerns about two teachers who recently taught a lesson with first graders related to the war in Israel and Gaza. We were also made aware that there were social media posts on those teachers’ personal accounts that raised significant concerns, fear, anger, and harm for many in the Adat and CWC community. Lastly, I learned that CWC East Valley’s principal questioned Adat Ari El’s Rabbi Schuldenfrei regarding the Israeli flags on the temple campus, and those questions were inappropriate and insensitive.

On behalf of Citizens of the World and our entire staff, I deeply apologize for these missteps that have created fear, anger and harm.

And let me be clear – Citizens of the World unequivocally denounces Hamas. CWC unequivocally condemns the social media posts by our staff members, including the use of the word “genocide” to describe Israel’s actions; CWC unequivocally condemns the disturbing suggestion that Jews should leave the region; and we unequivocally condemn any lesson that creates bias or fear among our students. In their posts, the teachers used false and harmful language to describe a heartbreaking conflict – language that comes from a line of tropes that have harmed Jewish people for thousands of years. As an educational institution we know that words have meaning in their actual definition and in the trauma they carry for certain communities. You have my pledge that we will do what is needed to repair this harm.

I want to share with you that as soon as I learned of the posts, CWC immediately placed the involved teachers on leave and launched an investigation regarding these concerns, working with a third party neutral investigator, to ensure that we understand everything that took place and can hold people accountable. Since this is a personnel matter, the findings will be confidential. However, we are committed to providing both the CWC and Adat communities relevant, appropriate, and timely updates to the extent possible.

To address the harms that were caused by these posts, we have decided that the teachers who posted the social media content will not be returning to CWC East Valley. And, the principal will be taking a two week leave to focus on learning how to combat antisemitism and engage in sensitivity training to learn from this experience. (Please see her statement below.) I am relying on the findings of the investigation to determine additional consequences for the full conduct described above.

There is no place for hate or bias in any of our classrooms. We condemn all acts of hatred and, specifically, antisemitism and violence against Jews. Antisemitism is on the rise, and, consistent with our schools’ mission and values, we understand the importance of ensuring that all families and students feel a sense of safety and belonging within our diverse community.

Through all of these challenges, we hope this is an opportunity for our community to grow. We are coordinating with the Anti-Defamation League to train all of our leadership, teachers, and staff on how to navigate topics of antisemitism on top of previously planned professional development in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. We are committed to being true to our schools’ mission by working with your community and our staff and families to repair broken trust and safety.  

I want to specifically thank Rabbi Schuldenfrei and Executive Director Eric Nicastro’s willingness to engage in open dialogue and conflict resolution with CWC. I know that this is a difficult time for them to navigate and am beyond grateful to them for helping our community learn.

We want to share our deep appreciation for being guests on your temple campus, and we take this responsibility very seriously. Our goal is to respect and uphold the principles and values of the Adat community, as well as to ensure that the campus remains safe and secure at all times. We understand that we did not meet this goal this past week, and we are committed to improved practices to do better.

We greatly respect and honor our long-standing relationship with Adat Ari El. We pledge to continue working toward repair with you in accordance with our shared values.

Thank you.”

Sincerely,

Statement from Hye-Won Gehring, Principal, CWC East Valley:

“Dear Adat Community,

I am deeply apologetic for my insensitive questions to Rabbi Schuldenfrei and how I mishandled this important set of events. I did not understand the impact of my actions, and am committed to creating a safe environment for my Jewish students, staff and families. I fell short of CWC’s values. I am committed to growing and learning from this experience in order to be a strong partner to Rabbi Schuldenfrei and the entire Adat community. I am taking a two-week leave starting immediately to focus on combating antisemitism and sensitivity training and to reflect on my actions, their impact, and how I can do better in the future.”

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Adat Ari El Synagogue is the oldest and one of the largest Conservative synagogues located in the San Fernando Valley. Adat Ari El is committed to serving the community with compassion, empathy, and vision. Using Torah and acts of loving kindness as their guide, the Adat Ari El clergy team is dedicated to bringing Judaism to life through dynamic prayer, educational, and social justice opportunities. Adat Ari El is led by Senior Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei. To learn more please visit: https://www.adatariel.org
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